NOTE: This article is part of a BioLogos conversation on the topic of divine action. How can we understand God’s action in creation? Do the discoveries of modern science leave less room for God to act? We hope that these perspectives help foster greater understanding and more productive dialogue among Christians.
Beginning with Power
In the attempt to make sense of how God acts, the majority of people – both trained theologians and novices – begin with God’s power. This is understandable: action requires power of some kind. Without power, not even God can act.
The majority of believers have a particular view of divine power in mind as they begin to make sense of God’s actions. They use various words to describe this power, including “sovereignty,” “omnipotence,” or “almightiness.” No matter which word is preferred, the typical view says God can control others should God decide to do so. God can be controlling.
By “control,” most seem to think God can act as a sufficient cause or unilateral determiner. In the metaphysical sense, they believe God can coerce. Divine control means that God’s actions in relation to someone or something allows for no creaturely contribution: cooperation or resistance. When God controls, God alone determines the outcome.
It is widely believed that creatures cannot control God. Being uncontrollable seems essential to God. But many theologians across the centuries have said creatures do not even influence God. God is impassible, they say. Creatures can influence other creatures and the world. But such influence varies depending on the context and the creature’s power.
A few believers think God always controls others all the time. This is view amounts to full-blown theological determinism. Those who affirm this position typically appeal to mystery or the inscrutable divine will when questions about creaturely freedom or contribution arise. Few academic theologians, however, will say God always controls or is the “omnicause”.
The majority of believers I encounter believe God gives creatures and creation some freedom, agency, and indeterminacy. Some think God controls everything except humans. Those who affirm this view, however, typically say God periodically “intervenes” to control humans too.
A small number of theologians say God never controls, despite having the ability to do so. Philip Clayton, for instance, says that after creating the world ex nihilo, God never controls others, “not even once.” God could be controlling, but God voluntarily chooses not to be so.
Most who say God gives freedom, agency, or existence to creatures say doing so is a wholly free choice on God’s part. They believe God voluntarily chooses not to override, withdraw, or fail to provide freedom, agency, or existence. The God who could control freely decides to give what could be freely retained.
Beginning with Love
I think there’s a better way to think about how God acts. This way begins with love. The alternative view of divine action I propose, therefore, begins with God’s loving relations to creation rather than God’s power.
Of course, just about every Christian believes God loves creatures and creation. Most wholeheartedly affirm the Johannine affirmations that “God is love,” although theologians interpret that statement in various ways. Most Christians affirm that God’s love is steadfast, as writers of Old Testament books repeatedly say. I’ve never met a Christian who explicitly denies that God loves (although I’ve met some whose theology implicitly denies it!).
When I say that my view begins with God’s love in relation to creation, I mean, first, that God’s love is relational. God gives and receives from creatures. Rather than being impassible, God is affected by what creatures do, because God suffers with and rejoices alongside creatures. God’s love both empowers others and empathizes with them. God engages others with giving-and-receiving love.
I also believe God’s relational love is inherently uncontrolling. “Love does not insist on its own way,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5). To put it more clearly, love never coerces, in the metaphysical sense of entirely determining others. Love is never a sufficient cause, which means God’s love does not control.
My distinct claim is that love is logically prior to power in God’s nature. In God, therefore, love comes first. Because God’s nature is first and foremost love, divine love is always and inherently uncontrolling. By “uncontrolling,” I mean that God never controls creatures, situations, or worlds. God never coerces, in the metaphysical sense of unilateral determining others.
To say love is logically paramount in God does not mean that we disregard other divine attributes. Nor should we consider the other attributes unimportant. But the way we talk about God reveals how we explicitly or implicitly prioritize God’s attributes. And this prioritization influences how we best make sense of divine action.
All of this obviously affects how I believe God acts. It also affects for what God is creatively and morally responsible as the Creator, Sustainer, and Saviour of the world.
I call the view of divine action I’m proposing “essential kenosis.” This view of kenosis differs from others’ views.
Many Christians know the Philippians passage in which the Greek word kenosis is found (although we also can find it elsewhere in Scripture). The Apostle Paul says “each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” He then says Christ Jesus “emptied himself (kenosis), taking the form of a slave.” This included Jesus humbling himself and dying on a cross. We therefore ought to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:3-13).
Scholars translate kenosis in this passage in various ways. Theologians like me haggle over the nuances. Many contemporary theologians believe this passage says Jesus reveals something important about God’s nature. While theologians in the past used this passage to debate how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us something crucial about who God is and how God acts. Kenosis is the key to understanding divine action.
The meaning of kenosis is partly given in the book of Philippians, in phrases such as Jesus “taking the form of a slave,” “humbled himself,” and his “death on a cross.” Kenosis refers in part to action that looks “to the interest of others” and enables “us to will and to work.” Taken in light of the revelation of God in Jesus, these phrases suggest that God’s power is essentially self-giving and vulnerable, not overpowering. Instead of controlling us, God enables us to act.
Divine kenosis might be best interpreted as God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love.
Essential Kenosis vs. Voluntary Self-Limitation
Many scholars today say kenosis refers to God’s “self-limitation.” In his servant-like life, liberating words, death on the cross, and more, Jesus reveals that God’s power is limited. This is another way to say God does not control.
Most who affirm a kenotic view of divine power, however, believe God’s power is voluntarily self-limited. In other words, kenosis is an accidental characteristic of God not essential to God’s nature. This view implies that God could control, but (usually) does not. God could fail to self-give and others-empower, but God (usually) does not. Thomas Tracy describes this view when he speaks of God’s “intentional self-restraint.”
John Polkinghorne describes it as voluntary divine self-limitation. God’s “act of creation involves a voluntary limitation,” says Polkinghorne, “in allowing the other to be.” Voluntary kenosis entails, therefore, that “God does not will the act of a murderer or the destructive force of an earthquake but allows both to happen in a world in which divine power is deliberately self-limited to allow causal space for creatures.”
In contrast to those who say God is voluntarily kenotic, I do not think God voluntarily self-limits. I do not think kenotic self-limitation is based upon a voluntary promise God made long ago. Nor do I think God voluntarily chooses to self-limit in the present.
The voluntary self-limitation view of divine action has major flaws. It is especially unappealing when it comes to thinking about God’s role in preventing evil. Notice that Polkinghorne says God “allows” the act of the murderer and the destructive force of an earthquake. The God who freely allows evil, however, is morally culpable for failing to prevent it. Permitting genuine evil that could be stopped is not the way of love.
Essential Kenosis and Scientific Explanation
The voluntary self-limitation view of divine action has other flaws too. It fails to provide a consistent explanatory grid for understanding science, for instance. If God occasionally controls a creature or situation, any scientific explanation for that event that appeals to natural causes would, in principle, be false. In other words, supernatural interruptions undermine consistent scientific methods.
A consistent explanatory framework account for both theology and science would avoid claiming either that God entirely determines events or that natural causes entirely determine them. On this issue, I’m reminded of the cartoon showing a scientist at the chalkboard writing physics equations. In midst of the equations, the phrase “then a miracle occurs” has been scribbled, obviously undermining the scientist’s search for consistent explanation!
According to essential kenosis, God is present throughout all creation, to every creature and entity, no matter how small or large. God is also always influential in creation. To use philosophical language, essential kenosis says God is a necessary cause in all things.
Essential kenosis says that from the big bang, in the emergence of life, through evolutionary history, and ongoing today, God creates through uncontrolling love. This direct but uncontrolling divine action both gives to creatures and receives from them. Our loving God is personal and relational but never controlling.
In terms of explanations of reality in general or any event in particular, therefore, both science and theology always contribute necessarily to a full explanation. God is a partial cause in every event, but never a sufficient one. Consequently, science always plays a role in explanations of life.
Essential Kenosis and Two Alternatives
Essential kenosis stands between two related views of God’s love and power. We’ve already noted one: God voluntarily self-limits. This view says God could control others entirely but (usually) chooses not to do so. Voluntary divine self-limitation fails to solve the problem of why the God who voluntarily self-limits doesn’t occasionally un-self-limit to prevent evil. And it cannot support the consistency needed for scientific explanations.
The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed from without.
The “external forces limit God” view unfortunately seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. God seems caught in the clutches of exterior principalities and powers. While we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under a foreign authority.
Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary divine self-limitation and that external powers limit God. We might call essential kenosis “involuntary divine self-limitation, because it says limits to God’s power derive from within: God’s nature of love. The Creator does not voluntarily self-limit, nor do creation or external laws rule the Maker.
Since the time of David Hume, it has become common to talk about God “intervening” in the world or divine action as “supernatural.” This language is problematic, however, for several reasons.
The word “intervene” suggests that God comes into some situation from the outside. Instead of already present, God must enter into a situation typically sustained entirely by natural causes. When intervening, the absent God interjects into what was previously devoid of divine action.
While “supernatural” can mean any number of things, it is often used to talk about God interfering with creaturely causation. Or the word refers to interrupting natural laws. Rather than empowering creatures, some say God “supernaturally” controls them unilaterally to bring about some result.
The God of essential kenosis is always already present to all things at all times. This God never needs to intervene to interrupt creation. And because God is always uncontrolling, it makes no sense to say God supernaturally interferes with creation or the law-like regularities of reality.
God’s steadfast love for all creation makes life possible moment by moment. And this steadfast love generates the law-like regularities we see in the universe. Although often called “the laws of nature,” these regularities persist, says essential kenosis, because God necessarily gives existence to all creation through steadfast love. God cannot interfere with creaturely causation nor interrupt these regularities, because doing so would mean God fails to express self-giving, others-empowering love to all others.
God and Free Processes
Essential kenosis affirms a version of what has come to be called “the free process” view of God’s relation to the causal processes of the universe. The free process view notes that the complex world has numerous systems and processes dependent upon one another. Slight changes in the system create the loss of equilibrium. “Fiddling” with the systems would lead to chaotic results. Consequently, God provides law-like regularities that are not interrupted.
John Polkinghorne speaks of the regularity necessary for these processes as best “understood theologically as signs of the faithfulness of the Creator.” Essential kenosis agrees but adds that the Creator’s faithfulness derives from God’s loving nature. To apply the words of the Apostle Paul: “God remains faithful,” because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tm 2:13).
Polkinghorne also says God “will not interfere” in the operation of the regularities described by physics. To do so, he says, “would be for the Eternally Reliable to turn himself into an occasional conjurer.” Essential kenosis agrees, but it makes the stronger claim that God cannot interfere with these regularities. God cannot do so, because God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and uncontrolling love comes first in God’s nature. And God cannot deny himself.
The processes of the world, therefore, are free and regular because of God’s love. The freedom and agency in the created order derives from divine love. And the regularities in creation are the natural results of God’s necessarily and lovingly giving existence to all things, from the smallest to the largest.
Upon finding that essential kenosis has a noncoercive, noninterfering God who provides law-like regularities, it may surprise some to find that this view of divine action affirms miracles. We best define miracles as good and unexpected events that occur because of God’s special action in relation to creation. God can be uncontrolling and yet instigate miracles.
Biblical writers never explicitly use language that says God controlled creatures to enact miracles. In fact, most miracle stories recorded in the Bible tell of an essential role for creaturely contribution. We need not read biblical witness presupposing controlling power, because the text neither requires nor explicitly supports this presupposition.
According to essential kenosis, miracles are moments or events in which the loving activity of an almighty God dramatically affects a creature or situation. This dramatic work is possible through the various forms God provides creatures, forms pertinent to and arising in relation to the particular context or creature. When creatures cooperate with God’s loving call by instantiating a form for goodness, surprisingly good results can occur.
In this miraculous activity, God acts personally, relationally, and lovingly, not as a steady state, impersonal, or homogenous force. But acting personally, relationally, and lovingly never entails controlling creatures or situations when instigating miracles.
In this essay I was only able to sketch out my view and why it matters to start with love when pondering divine action. For more, I encourage readers to see my newly published book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. I have tried to provide a coherent account of divine action and various other issues related to it, especially evil, law-like regularities of the world, scientific method, and miracles. As I see it, the essential kenosis view of divine action, with its emphasis up God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love of God offers the best overall model of divine action.
About the author
Thomas Jay Oord
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